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Disease scare crashes Intel events

The chip giant cancels developer forums in Taiwan and China, and CEO Craig Barrett postpones a trip to Asia due to the deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome has caused Intel to cancel two conferences in Asia and postpone a trip to the region by CEO Craig Barrett.

In the latest case of the mysterious illness disrupting technology company operations in Asia, Intel decided Tuesday evening to cancel its developer forum events slated for later this month in Beijing and in Taipei, Taiwan.

"In response to customers' concerns over (SARS), the format will change to presenting technology content updates and press announcements over the coming months," the company said in a statement.

The main purpose of Barrett's trip was to speak at the conferences, said company spokesman Chuck Mulloy. Barrett will reschedule other events on his itinerary, Mulloy said.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that people consider postponing nonessential travel to Hong Kong and the neighboring Guangdong Province of China. According to the organization, SARS is an atypical pneumonia of unknown cause that was first recognized in February. As of Wednesday, the organization said, a total of 2,223 cases of the disease had been reported, with 78 fatalities. About 1,900 of the cases were from Hong Kong or other parts of China.

The WHO said a five-person WHO team of experts is traveling to the Guangdong province to gather more evidence about the outbreak of SARS in China. Meanwhile, fears of the disease have risen throughout Asia. The New York Times reported that crowds flooded Hong Kong supermarkets Tuesday in response to a rumor that the city would be labeled an infected area and face an international quarantine.

Thailand is taking strict precautions with travelers from countries affected by the disease, according to a report in The Straits Times of Singapore. The publication reported that people suspected of having SARS will be denied entry to Thailand, and those allowed in must wear face masks at all times or risk being fined and jailed for up to six months.

Intel's decision to cancel its conferences is not the first example of the contagious disease throwing a wrench in the plans of tech companies, which have extensive manufacturing facilities in the Asia-Pacific region and often depend on components made there.

Over the weekend, Intel told about 60 to 70 employees assigned to a Hong Kong office that they should stay home this week. The decision came after one employee at the office showed symptoms of SARS, Mulloy said. The affected employees work on one floor of a three-floor office that serves as Intel's sales and marketing headquarters for the region. Those employees are working from home, Mulloy said Wednesday.

Concerns about SARS led computer maker Sun Microsystems to cancel the Shanghai portion of a massive product launch it had scheduled for April 7 and to postpone a major conference that had been expected to draw 4,000 attendees. Chipmaker ATI Technologies postponed an Asian tour intended to show off its new line of products.

The disease also has affected operations at a Singapore plant of Motorola. And a possible SARS infection in one of its employees prompted Hewlett-Packard to shutter a 300-person Hong Kong office on Friday. HP also distributed information about the illness to its staff throughout the region.

HP spokeswoman Monica Sarkar said Wednesday that the company had reopened the Hong Kong office, but was encouraging employees to work at home. The company also is requesting that employees returning from Hong Kong, the rest of China, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam to other parts of the world work at home for 10 days, Sarkar said.

The effect of the illness on the electronics industry could be devastating, according to research firm Aberdeen Group. In a report issued Monday, the firm suggested SARS could break critical supply lines. "If China were hypothetically quarantined, it would take literally months of 24/7 work by manufacturing planners and logistics mavens to create qualified alternate production sources," the firm wrote. "That would mean nuclear winter to the semiconductor and electronics industry."